We are sitting in the chic white leather Russian Room at The Kennedy Center during a rehearsal break. Director Peter Kazaras has brought his bound score and throughout our conversation pours through it, reeling off Italian while getting into each character, getting me to look at the score, handling it like it’s his Bible. It’s thrilling to be talked through a close reading of the score and feel his passion and deep knowledge of Puccini’s work La bohème.
Susan Galbraith: Let’s talk about directing opera with an emphasis on its theatrical aspects.
Peter Kazaras: Well, having been a performer for thirty years and still occasionally performing, let me make a statement to start off with that for me there is no distinction between music that is opera and theatre. Now pure symphonic works can be exciting and occasionally dramatic, but there are also pieces that are determinedly non-dramatic like music by Taverner whose music is primarily meditative. I am all about the dramatic.
– Were you always hooked on opera? –
The first things I saw were The King and I and My Fair Lady. I responded to opera which I went to see when I was ten in exactly the same way. My parents were both musicians. My father was an opera singer who had to give this up and my mother was a musicologist. Of course I was brainwashed that this was not a proper profession for any sane person, and they were totally right because it’s totally crazy and you should only do it if there is nothing else you want to do.
– You are now working on an enormous stage and it’s not an easy acoustic space, even for singers of the caliber you are working with. How do you achieve the intimacy required of some of this story of La bohème?-
I am lucky to be working with the conductor Philippe Auguin, who knows the score backwards and forwards, and that’s good because there are special challenges in this work. There are a lot of moments that are rhapsodic but there are also moments which are purely conversational. And this is the week where the performers get into deeper conversations to understand those moments.
This is when I step in and ask “Why are you doing that? That’s not what is required in the score. This is not a big thing you are saying here. It’s a little tiny little thing and there is no heavy orchestration under it.”
Puccini was not an idiot, and he knew that when he wanted a singer to sing softly then the orchestra also had to play softly. But for some reason in certain American houses which are bigger and there are some inexperienced singers, they feel they have to bellow. Now that is not happening in this production. First of all, we have experienced singers, and then I’m making sure that the big loud stuff is only when it is called for in the score. Otherwise, not so much.
– It sounds as if, as the stage director for La bohème, you don’t begin with exploring the big sweeping ideas and stage blocking as a director of a play might. –
Well, the problem then is that it doesn’t encompass what is already written in the score. Also, typically there is no time in an opera rehearsal to reinvent the wheel. It can be dangerous to go down a path of discovery only to realize that the composer has completely undercut you by what he has put in the score. The discussions must always include the score. Not just the musical ideas of the score but the dynamics, the articulation markings, and the tempo. They all tell us so much.
For instance, look at this. What does it mean at the end of Mimi’s aria in La bohème, after she has her big rhapsodic output in the famous “Quando men vo?”
“I look over the skies and the first sun of April is mine.” And then she stops and reflects, “ I look at this rose on my window pane and I think the scent is so sweet but the flowers I make don’t have any smell.” Then, suddenly and quietly there is just a rush of words.
– (And I’m watching Peter suddenly doing Mimi, rushing through Italian phrases at top speed) –
“I don’t really know what to say and I don’t really have anything else to say but I have just come at an inconvenient time to bother you. I’m sorry.”
See? It ‘s all there. It tells you an amazing amount. It also tells you that when Mimi says the stuff she likes she is using exactly the words that he’s just used in his aria. She’s basically mirroring back to him — like two people on a first date and one says “I like this and this.” The other one says “ Oh, I do too! “ To help an audience realize the genius of construction of this piece is thrilling! This piece is extremely tightly constructed. I feel it’s important to take a look at the music again – afresh.
-It sounds as if you have a very clear understanding of what you want to see and hear. Typically for plays the actors come into the first rehearsal and might not know their lines but rather expect to find in the moment with another actor the layers in their performance. Opera singers come to you on the first day and they know their music. –
They better know it!
– Then, from a director’s point of view, is it sometimes about “un-doing?”-
Well, sometimes it’s not undoing. Sometimes a singer may think he or she knows the music.
– (Again Peter flips through the score and begins to analyze word for word and note for note.) –
November 1 – 15, 2014
Washington National Opera at
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Approximately 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $25 – $310
The next challenge often is to get the singers to pay attention to who their scene partners are. That’s theatre, right? A director wants his performers to really see who the person is they are working with, not the idealized version. Is it the imaginary Musetta you’ve been dreaming of? Or is it this totally hot, gorgeous, living and breathing person standing there but perhaps she is not what you imagined.
– So, what would you tell people who come to your production of La bohème, to look for? –
Look for the theatrical values. Look at these characters — they are young and attractive people who look like who they are, who are believable as their characters, and there’s a very theatrical take on certain aspects of the story. If you know the piece, there are some things you’ll come expecting but will not happen, and the set undergoes a transformation.
Now I don’t want to give anything away but look for things as Mimi’s health deteriorates and how that situation is reflected in her surroundings so things are not always what they seem. I’m really interested in story telling and how story telling can move into the weird and exciting, bending expectations.
– This production has been much anticipated as newly conceived and staged. But I understand you came into it after certain decisions were made. –
The program will tell people that the production was conceived by Jo Davies and staged by Peter Kazaras. But the original director had to withdraw. And in July I was working on An American Tragedy for Glimmerglass, and Francesca asked me to do this. I stand by all the ideas, but I don’t want to appear as if I am taking credit for them.
– What an exciting time the work has been set in. Was this inspiring? –
Yes, right at the end of World War I when Paris was hopping. We explore what is bohemianism, but that’s very much also of today. Whether we are talking about hippies or hipsters or rich kids living in a suburban mall, these young people will be easily recognizable, and the mixture of people that you’d find will feel very lively and contemporary.
But I think my gift is simply to love the score so deeply I want to reveal it for an audience. I feel entrusted with this great work.